Wednesday, 4 November 1998

C.S. Forester: Hornblower and the Crisis (1967)

Edition: Pan, 1974
Review number: 157

This posthumously published collection of Hornblower stories includes the last story Forester wrote, which is an incomplete first draft, and the last Hornblower story in their internal chronology. The incomplete story, which fills the bulk of the book and gives it its title, is Forester filling in a gap in Hornblower's past. A newly appointed captain, he captures a ship and takes possession of secret papers from Napoleon, bearing his new seal as Emperor of France. This, the Admiralty decides, is to be used as the model for a forged order to the French admiral Villeneuve, to entice him out of his refuge so that the British fleet could attack (the scenario of the battle of Trafalgar). Hornblower volunteers to travel into Napoleon's empire and take the fake dispatch to Villeneuve; then the draft ends, left uncompleted on Forester's death.

The problem with all of this lies in a kind of inconsistency with the rest of Hornblower's career, caused by the fact that the internal chronology of the stories does not match the order in which they were written. Such an important event, besides opening up the possibility of promotion in a completely different way, would surely have resonances to be picked up later, particularly in Flying Colours, in which he is again travelling secretly through French territory (this time as an escaped prisoner of war). But because these books were written earlier, neither Hornblower himself nor any of the other characters ever mentions the scenario of this story.

The book is filled out with two earlier short stories. One features Hornblower as a kind of detective, where the solution to the problem he has been set seems to me to be rather too contrived. The other is set right at the end of Hornblower's career, in the year of revolution 1848 when he entertains an unexpected guest whom he thinks is a madman because he is announced as claiming to be Napoleon; of course, he turns out to be Louis Napoleon (later Emperor Napoleon III) on his way to Paris to seize power. Forester was not a master of the short story, and these two stories are competent pieces of craftsmanship without really having even the ambition to be anything more.

Overall then, this book is for Hornblower fans and competists, not the casual reader.

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